It’s a hot day in 19th-century California, and an eclectic group of travelers sit inside a stagecoach. Among them is the demure Mary Augustine—a nun of the Blessed Sisters of Hope—and a blind man, Mr. Cordoba. They introduce themselves, make friendly chit-chat, and over the course of their journey, begin to tell their personal stories.
Nothing they say is true.
In fact, Mary isn't a bride of Christ at all—but the married and clever Grace Rousselot. And just as her skirts hide the gun strapped to her thigh, Cordoba's glasses hide a pair of eyes with perfect vision. His real name is Reuben Jones and, like Grace, he's a con artist executing one of his carefully laid schemes.
As great as their disguises are, they're forced to reveal their identities when the mafia attacks their stagecoach, leaving everyone dead but them. With nothing to their names save for an antique statuette, Grace and Rueben must hatch a plan, recover their losses—and try not to fall in love in the process.
Read on for an excerpt from Patricia Gaffney's historical romance, Crooked Hearts, and then download the book.
“So, go on,” she said, satisfied, leaning back against the high leather banquette in their secluded booth at Belle’s. “What’s it say about the robbery?”
The small piece of raw steak she’d made him stick on his swollen eyebrow came unstuck and fell in his lap. He retrieved it absently, deposited it on his plate, and went back to reading. “‘According to San Mateo sheriff’s deputies, the only objects stolen from the traveling art exhibit were an undetermined number of funerary sculpture pieces, among them a jade dragon used as a tomb guardian during the Wei period, a Han earthenware unicorn, and twelve calendrical representations from the Ming dynasty.’”
“Eleven,” Grace amended smugly.
“‘Priceless paintings, scrolls, and ceramics were left behind by the miscreants, for motives the police have not yet determined. The captured Chinaman has refused to speak, and at last report had not even divulged his name.’”
Reuben folded the paper and laid it aside, reaching for “the mug of beer at his elbow. He took a sip, then gingerly pressed the cold glass to his eyebrow, grimacing. “So. Fireplug won’t talk.”
“Maybe that piece of paper has his name on it,” she theorized. “If so, we did him a favor when we lifted it.”
“Mm. My friend with the curio shop can find out what it says.”
She looked unimpressed. “I can take it to the local laundry and find out what it says.”
“I don’t think that would be wise.”
“Because the fewer people who know about this, the better. Especially since we don’t know what the paper says yet,”
“What difference does it make?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’ve got something on your mind, haven’t you? Something besides making sure you’re not connected to the robbery.”
Instead of answering, he set his elbows on the table and leaned toward her, the picture of earnest entreaty. In his best you-can-trust-me voice, he asked, “How much money did you lose in the robbery, Grace?”
“I told you, it’s none of your business.”
“Oh, come on,” he coaxed. “I came straight with you about the Croakers, didn’t I? I lost almost two thousand dollars, and I need forty-five hundred by next Tuesday. How much more forthcoming can I be?”
She played with the buttons at the wrist of her new India silk day dress, probably admiring the contrast between the dark burgundy and the white skin of her long, slender hand. She had a new cape, too, black with a cream satin lining, hanging on a hook behind her. He hoped she was remembering that neither the gown nor the cape, nor her new high-button walking shoes, had come cheap, and that he hadn’t so much as batted an eye when he’d heard the price. In fact, after she’d modeled the burgundy silk for him this afternoon in Miss Jolie’s Fashion Salon and Ready-to-Wear, he’d parted with his money without a peep.
His hard-earned money, make that. They’d traipsed around town to four different post offices before going to Miss Jolie’s, and from each box he’d collected half a week’s worth of pickings from his numerous business enterprises. “Slim pickings,” Grace had labeled them, and he’d had to admit to her that his rackets were currently in a slump. Which, to Reuben’s mind, made his generosity all the more commendable. Naturally he expected to be repaid, at a rate of interest he hadn’t told her about yet, as soon as her husband wired money in response to the telegram she’d sent him earlier in the day. But still. He’d bought the clothes she was wearing, the meal she was eating—the bed she’d be sleeping in again tonight. Even on Grace Rousselot’s cockeyed scale of justice, that ought to earn him one honest answer.
“Okay,” she said finally, “I’ll tell you. On one condition.”
“That you promise not to whistle.”
Reuben looked down at the unappetizing slurry of ground beef, mashed potatoes, and applesauce on his plate. “I can’t even chew.” The Croakers had loosened one of his molars.
She swept the half-empty restaurant with a glance, bent forward, and mouthed, “Four.”
She sat back.
“Four what? Hundred?”
She looked disgusted.
“Four thousand? Four thousand dollars?”
“Shh!” She took a sip of coffee, relishing his amazement.
“And you collected all that as Sister Augustine?” he hissed.
“How long did it take?”
“About three weeks.”
He muttered a number of oaths and curses in a language she wouldn’t understand. “I’ve been running the wrong gyps,” he marveled, shaking his head over and over. “Christ almighty, I should’ve been playing a priest.”
“Three long, grueling weeks,” she pointed out. “And don’t think it’s just a matter of putting on a clerical collar and waiting for people to start throwing money at you. It’s an art.”
“Art, shmart. I watched you on the stagecoach with Sweeney, don’t forget. He was going for his wallet even before you started batting your eyes at him.”
“Art, shmart?” Obviously she’d never heard that expression. “Anyway,” she sniffed, “I don’t bat my eyes.”
“The hell you don’t.” She also blushed, wept, pouted her lips, and stuck her chest out whenever she thought it would get her where she wanted to go.
“We’re getting off the subject,” she snapped. “I’ve told you how much the thieves got from me. Are you thinking of doing something about it?”
“How badly do you need the money back?”
“You’ve got a really irritating habit, you know that? Of answering a question with a question.”
He folded his arms and waited.
“I’m not in debt, if that’s what you’re suggesting. Nobody’s going to beat me up if I don’t get it back.”
“What do you need it for?”
“Medical bills,” she answered too quickly.
“You look pretty healthy to me.” His leer wasn’t successful; he couldn’t raise his bad eyebrow high enough, and he winced when he tried to smirk.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but my husband…” She looked down, took a deep breath, looked up. “My husband,” she got out with a catch in her voice, “has a bad heart.”
Oh, she was very, very good. So good, he wasn’t a hundred percent positive she was lying. “That would be Henri, the entrepreneur?” he asked neutrally.
“He’s a former entrepreneur. I forgot to tell you he’s retired.”
“Aha,” she mimicked, impatient. “Back to the question, Mr. Jones. What’s your interest in my financial affairs? What’s going on in that devious mind of yours?”
He acknowledged the compliment with a nod. “What I’ve got in mind is pretty simple, Mrs. Rousselot. Being such a smart lady, you’re probably already there ahead of me.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me.” She smiled to disarm him.”
“It worked; he lost his train of thought for a second, caught up in the sly, unexpected friendliness of that smile. It took a big gulp of beer to get his wits back. “I’m suggesting that you and I don’t take the combined loss of six thousand dollars lying down,” he said softly. “I’m suggesting we take steps to get it back. Together.”
The quick gleam in her eye, there and gone in a second, proved his suggestion hadn’t taken her by surprise. She pushed her plate to the side and rested her chin on her twined fingers. “How?”
“We start with Doc Slaughter. He’s the antique dealer I was telling you about.”
“‘Doc Slaughter’?” She had a surprisingly girlish giggle. “That’s the most unlikely antique dealer’s name I ever heard.”
“Well, that’s his name. He’s got a shop on Powell Street. I could go see him tomorrow, show him the tiger and the—”
“We could go see him, you mean.”
“Slip of the tongue. Nice to know you’re paying attention.”
“I always pay attention.”
“We’ll show him the tiger, see if he can tell us something interesting about it. Even if it’s not worth much by itself, it could be worth a great deal to whoever’s got the other eleven pieces.”
“Like a chess set with a missing queen.”
“Exactly. As for Fireplug’s letter, Doc’s got contacts in Chinatown; he can pay somebody to translate it and keep his mouth shut afterward.”
“Why does he have contacts in Chinatown? Tell me more about this guy.”
“Let’s go home, I’ll tell you about him there.” He raised his hand to signal for the bill. “I think we have to figure Fireplug for a thief among thieves, don’t you? He took the tiger during the holdup for himself, either to hock on his own or hold out and sell back to his employer later.”
“That’s assuming he had an employer. Couldn’t he and the other two have been acting on their own?”
“They could’ve been, but somehow I don’t think they were.”
She folded her napkin into a small, neat square, frowning. “I don’t think so either.”
“Good, we’re agreed.”
I’m suggesting we take steps to get it back. Together.
They stood up. He found her cape and helped her on with it. She was wearing her hair on top of her head tonight; a few blonde corkscrew curls had slipped their pins and were bobbing around her face in a cheerful, artless way. At least he assumed it was artless. With Grace, you could never be sure.
“I love my new dress,” she sparkled, turning her head to look up at him over her shoulder. “Thank you for buying it for me.”
She was trying to whittle down his interest rate, he knew, but he couldn’t resist her pretty, twinkly-eyed gratitude. “Seeing how beautiful you look in it is all the thanks I need,” he said fatuously. “I meant that figuratively, of course,” he called after her, weaving through tables of diners toward the door, hurrying to keep up. “Not literally!”
“Outside, a thin, sickle moon hung low in a fog-free, blue-black sky. From the crest of a hill, they could see the dark form of Alcatraz Island in the Bay, the winking lights of the Marin headlands beyond. The sidewalks in Reuben’s neighborhood weren’t paved yet. Grace stumbled, toe caught in a warped wooden crack; he took her arm and tucked it under his, and kept it there even when the going got smoother.
He kept the pace slow, and at Union Street he started to limp. At Filbert, he leaned some of his weight on her arm.
“Are you all right?” she asked, glancing up at him from under her lashes.
He sent her a tight smile and a grim nod. By now they were down to a crawl, and he’d added a little hitch to his breathing.
“Do your ribs hurt?”
“Nothing to speak of. Let’s stop for a second and look at the”—deep breath—“view.” He leaned back against a dusty, dwarfed maple tree, stifling a manful groan, and slipped his free hand inside his coat. The “view” was of a vacant lot adjacent to a harness repair shop. Grace peered at him in the paltry glow of the streetlamp, but didn’t say anything. “Were you comfortable last night?” he asked conversationally. “Sleep well, did you?”
She blinked at him. “Yes, thanks. Like a brick. And you?”
“Ah.” Good answer, stoically vague; he let it lie for a minute. “When I was younger, I could sleep anywhere.” He trailed off again, then gave a hearty, forced-sounding laugh. “Thing about that couch is that it’s got a loose spring, right about—well, about rib height, if you can believe that. Shoots up right about here.” He patted his vest. “Isn’t that the darnedest thing?”
She said, “Hm.”
He allowed another minute to pass. “Well, guess we’d better get moving. We should probably turn in early, since we’ll be needing all our wits tomorrow. Mm?”
“Not that I expect to get too much shut-eye on that couch.” He smiled, pained but good-humored.
“With another grunt, he propelled himself off the tree and got them going again at a pitiful, shuffling pace. At Napier Street he stopped dead in his tracks. “Say! I just thought of something.”
“What could it be?”
He didn’t like the gimlet gleam in her eye, but there was no turning back now. “Well, just that—” He seemed to recollect himself. “Oh, no, excuse me,” he muttered, sheepish.
“No, no, don’t regard it. Bad idea, don’t know what I was thinking of.”
“I can just imagine what you’ll say,” he said with a little laugh.
“Well, just a silly thought—that we might have shared the um, the um …”
“The, um, bed?”
“Ha! There, you see? Dumb idea. Erase it from your mind.”
They walked along in absolute silence for half a block. Passing under the streetlamp at the entrance to his alley, he risked a downward glance to see how she was taking it. Her brow was furrowed in thought. He put a little more weight on her while he got the key to the door out of his pocket.
He got the door unlocked, but she stopped him before he could open it. “Reuben,” she said softly.
His heart actually missed a beat; she’d never called him Reuben before. “Yes, Grace?”
“I can’t stand to think of you being in pain.” She pulled her hand out from under his arm and then, to his amazement, slipped it inside his coat. When she started to stroke his ribs with her fingertips, he stopped breathing. “I think I know you well enough by now to trust you.”
“You can trust me.”
“If you really want to, you can sleep with me.”
“I—” He had to swallow before he could continue. “I really want to.”
“Then you can. Of course, you’d be on your honor.”
“Grace,” he sighed with his eyes closed. “You’re an angel of mercy.” It sounded like a prayer.
All his breath came out in a whoosh when the angel landed a restrained but effective right jab to the center of his most painful rib. “You can sleep with me when pigs fly,” she clarified succinctly, and sailed into the house, leaving him wheezing on the doorstep.
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Featured photo: Cover of "Random" by Paul Lederer; Additional photo: Jon Toney / Unsplash